"I would like to see Maritime run like A private corporation", Says Commissioner John S. Morlu
An interview with
Dr. Abdoulaye W. Dukule
Commissioner John S. Morlu
A: Mr. Morlu: First and foremost, I must thank Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, for the confidence reposed in me, to head the Program. Yes I have been here for over thirty years, but I was in different segments. We have a very good program, an industry that Liberia has been in for about sixty-six years. It has advantages that can benefit the Liberian people, and we can expand the program to maximize our revenues. We need to ensure that we work in agreement with our Agents, so that all parties can agree on a way forward.
Q: Dukule: What is the condition of the Maritime at this time, as it has been through lot of changes, especially during the war years.
A: Mr. Morlu: I would say that we are on a very good course. The Maritime industry is a very competitive business, with a lot of countries taking part and who were not involved in the past, such as the Bahamas and the Marshall Islands to name a few. But I do have a good feeling about the program, even though we took a hit during the war and our separation from ITC and the lawsuit that ensued also affected us. We lost few ships from our registry, who are now showing interest in coming back to do business with us. Japan and Hong Kong are now on the verge of coming back. We have just recently open up offices in Japan and Hong Kong and other areas. This is a positive sign. We are now looking forward to increasing both the tonnage and the number of ships.
Q: Dukule: How is the Maritime Program structured and who does what, like the agents, the Finance Ministry, the Offices in Monrovia and here - Vienna Virginia U.S.A. and New York- Could you put into lay mans term, what the Maritime is?
A: Mr. Morlu: The Maritime Program is basically an agency of the government, headed by the Commission. Because of our connection with the U.S. Government, in 1940, the Program was set up by John Tetanus, then Secretary of State, to enable Liberia generate revenues for herself instead of soliciting grants as it was the case. It was suggested that a U.S. corporation manage the program. The Head Office in Monrovia is where the Rules and Regulations in Conjunction with the (International Maritime Organization) IMO Conventions of Protocol Governing Maritime are decided and then forwarded to the various Agents who are acting on behalf of the Commission. The Agents are responsible for collecting revenues and fees for the Maritime and are paid a percentage that is agreed upon by both parties. At these agencies abroad, we also have Liberians representatives to supervise the management of activities for the Maritime - i.e. Vienna, Virginia, New York and Europe.
Q: Dukule: Under which ministry or institution of the government does Maritime fall?
A: Mr. Morlu: Currently it falls under none. Up to 1987, it was under the Finance Ministry and then it was put under Transport. Later it was decided that it would function better as an autonomous agency and this was done around 1998. There is now a process going on to repeal that law and put the program under the Ministry of Finance.
Q: Dukule: How would a return under another government agency affect your work?
A: Mr. Morlu: Any type of institutional supervision is troubling for us. What is the essence of re-aligning ourselves with the Ministry of Finance? Under the GEMAP all revenues are deposited directly into the Central Bank, therefore there is no issue about financial control. During the Taylor administration, a certain percentage of the revenues were allocated to the Maritime for operational purposes. Currently we have to do a budgetary submission that has to be approved by the Minister of Finance. This could seriously affect our freedom of movement because we could encounter delays in finding funds for travel expenses to the various IMO meetings and visiting our offices around the world. Will we have to keep asking the Ministry of Finance for money? This may have to go through a lot of procedure, which could cause a bottleneck or time constraint for the program. Our clients, the shipping lines, do not like to get bugged down with politics and bureaucracy. We have to look into to this carefully. I am not saying this to go against the President’s wishes, but we have to be careful not to cause a set back for a program that is just beginning to show signs of recovery after so many years of difficulties.
Q: Dukule: So you are saying you would prefer that the Maritime remain autonomous, instead of being put under another government agency?
A: Mr. Morlu: I would like to see the Maritime Program run like a private corporation, as there is enormous potential for us to grow in many ways. We have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of the Maritime, is it only to collect revenues? We have to understand that the Liberian Maritime is the second largest in the world and is a member of the United Nation the IMO. An example I would like to give is Panama. Panama has its Maritime set up like a private corporation with its own Board of Directors, even though it is owned by the Government, it is autonomous, this is what I would like to see happen to the Bureau of Maritime in Liberia. We can set up our Board and the Finance Minister could chair the board, but we need to keep the Bureau autonomous. If we have to compete with other Maritime authorities around the world, we have to be on their level especially so since we are the second largest Maritime program in the world.
Q: Dukule: Could you talk about your relationship with the Agents, like the separation of ITC, how has it affected the recovery process?
A: Mr. Morlu: During the years of crisis between Panama and the U.S., under Former President Bush, the U.S. Government imposed sanctions against Panama and opened up that Maritime industry to other countries. ITC took advantage of this and set up a separate registry in the Marshall Islands. We considered this a conflict of interest as ITC had exclusive rights to market the Liberian Maritime. We tried to settle the issue by asking ITC to drop the Marshall Islands but they refused and a lawsuit ensued. A settlement was reached between ITC and our new agent. By then Liberia had lost ships to the Marshall Islands and other countries. The war also affected the Registry significantly. We had about 2000 ships registered with us but that number was reduced to 1600 ships. The tonnage and crude tons also decreased. One may ask, why is revenue low? Revenue is low due to our new competitors. Therefore, we had to change our marketing strategy and offer incentives to attract new businesses and encourage our previous clients to come back. This strategy has helped the Bureau to experience growth and we look forward to more increase in 2007. Yes we have experienced hard times but I don’t believe in pointing fingers, except when one has proofs. There is an audit going on at this time. After the results are presented, we are going to find out what went wrong and try to fix it. We also need to order an audit of our own system, to ascertain if everything in the agreement with our agents were carried out correctly and how to make adjustments and decide whether to renew the contracts or not.
Q: Dukule: What is the current yearly intake of the Maritime?
A: Mr. Morlu: Our projection for 2006 is a little over 10 million dollars. As I previously stated, we are on the verge of getting back Japan and we are working with China currently. Germany is our largest market. We now have an office in Hamburg.
Q: Dukule: You spoke earlier of incentives to getting back previous clients. What incentives did you offer to get them back?
A: Mr. Morlu: Say for example you had five ships registered with us at about $1000.00 per ship, we may decide to reduce the fees to between $800.00 or $900.00 to lure them back.
Q: Dukule: Apart from revenue intake, what are other benefits for Liberians from the Maritime?
A: Mr. Morlu: Ordinary Liberians? All Liberians can benefit through employment and training. We are planning to revamp the Maritime Institute to train crews to work on Liberian registered vessels, as well as on other vessels. As you know the name “Liberia” is associated with ship registry around the world. We plan to build on this publicity. We are also planning to publish a Journal in order to inform the Liberian public and the world, of the functions of our maritime program. This journal will be a marketing and promotional tool for the Bureau and the nation as well..
Q: Dukule: One of the criticism from the genera public is that employees of Maritime are the only government employees who get paid well and are viewed as forming an exclusive close-knit club...
A: Mr. Morlu: That’s a misconception. Just before I took over, there was no money available. We had to do a recast budget to get funds to pay salaries for January, February and March. It is just a perception. Things at the Maritime are much different from the past. We are down to the bare bones. Employees of Maritime received benefits in the past, like other public corporations, such as at the NPA, LEC and others. But as of July this year 2006, all benefits will be eliminated as directed by the President. All government employees will be treated the same. We are currently struggling to balance the salary of employees abroad. There will be downsizing. Employees who will fall into this category will receive bonuses that may total about $91,000.00, which will benefit us in the long run. I have already presented my proposal to the President and have gotten her approval. We are dedicated to getting the Bureau re-organized.
Q: Dukule: We were talking about the benefits of the Maritime. People say that we have no control over who gets registered. We have no means of inspecting or determining whether these vessels are safe. Is all of that left up to the Agent to decide?
A: Mr. Morlu: It would be a good thing to have a port where ships could call in for services and other help. We have inspectors, which have been assigned by the Agents to inspect ships. We have a policy where the Agent can register only ships of over 500 tons but we are now, looking into what we call pleasure boats/crafts. There are lots of such crafts in countries like Spain and Italy, which are looking to be registered in Liberia for tax purposes. In the beginning Liberia was discouraged from registering these crafts by our Agent, because it was considered high risk. We are taking another look at these vessels as they also have to be registered and we could benefit from this market.
Q: Dukule: Your short, medium and long-term goals...
A: Mr. Morlu: We are planning to restructure the entire Bureau. We are still functioning on the rules of the 1970s; there has been no significant change in the 66 years of existence of the program. When I took over recently, there was no Internet or telephone system. In today’s world you need these tools to compete and communicate with the outside world. We are now looking at the Institute itself. We have to find funds to revitalize the Institute and bring in growth and education. I would like to set up our Maritime Institute, up to today’s standard, where other countries can send their crews to be trained, instead of Liberia sending out their employees for training. This also is a way of generating revenues. We need a Data Base set up to be able to communicate with our Agents as they are in charge of managing but we are going to be in control of our destiny. I am also proposing a Patented Registry, to where all registries will be solely for the Government of Liberia Maritime Affairs, and we won’t have to deal with another incident like the ITC experience. This is a long-term proposal. All that I have mentioned are things we have to do to be on par with the rest of the world.
Q: Dukule: What position is the Liberian Maritime in the world?
A: Mr. Morlu: We are number 2, next only to Panama.
Q: Dukule: Do you think we can surpass them, since we are #2?
A: Mr. Morlu: Well, it is a challenge. We have to work out the means to improve. There is sympathy for Liberian around the world, but we have to show that we can do it, that we can help ourselves.
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